Saskatchewan and British Columbia tabled their 1999 fiscal plans in March. While the prairie province handed down its sixth straight surplus budget, BC raised its deficit to fund new investment in health care and education in an effort to breathe new life into a sluggish economy.
In Regina, the NDP government of Roy Romanow stole a page from the federal finance minister and made health care and tax cuts the focus of its budget. Thanks largely to increases in federal transfers, Saskatchewan was able to inject an additional $195 million into Medicare while still having room to reduce the provincial sales tax by one percentage point.
In his budget speech, Saskatchewan's Finance Minister Eric Cline was quick to boast that spending on post-secondary education and skills training would jump by $33 million or nearly 8 per cent. However, the bulk of the increase is being delivered to skills training benefits, apprenticeship programs, and career and employment services. Universities and colleges will receive just $3 million more in 1999-2000, an increase of less than 2 per cent over current funding levels. By contrast, the government is dedicating more than $100 million to reduce the provincial debt.
Similarly, there's little in the budget for the province's research community. The Saskatchewan Research Council, which supports applied research in both the public and private sectors, received a funding increase of less than 1 per cent.
Meanwhile, the government of British Columbia, plagued with a series of scandals that has left it floundering in the polls, plotted a different course. With the provincial economy still reeling from the fallout of the Asian financial crisis, the NDP government of Glen Clark bucked the national trend toward cutting spending and balancing the books, and instead unveiled a deficit budget designed to stimulate the economy. The centrepiece of the budget is a record increase in the province's capital budget -- a total of $1.9 billion in new investment, including $359 million for building new hospitals and $341 million for new schools.
While the projected deficit is expected to grow from $544 million this year to $890 million in the coming fiscal year, there is actually only a modest increase in program spending of $277 million, or less than 2 per cent. The deficit is rising faster because personal income and small business tax cuts announced in the budget, combined with slow economic growth, are expected to lower revenues.
Education spending is scheduled to rise by $146 million in 1999-2000, including $15 million to create spaces for 2,900 post-secondary education students and apprentices. The budget also announced that the freeze on post-secondary tuition fees will remain in effect for the fourth straight year. It means that average undergraduate tuition fees in BC will remain near $2,300 per year, compared to about $3,500 or more in Ontario and Alberta.
"It's a shame that in one of the richest countries on Earth, young people in some provinces are having to drop out of university and college because of high tuition and a crushing debt load," BC's Finance Minister Joy McPhail said in her budget speech. "We won't let that happen in BC. Our government believes that getting a good education shouldn't depend on where you're from or how much your parents earn."|
Jim Gaskell, president of the Confederation of University Faculty Associations of BC, applauded the government for maintaining the tuition fee freeze and increasing the number of fully funded student spaces. "This government's ongoing commitment to the growth of BC's post-secondary education system is welcome and in stark contrast to other provinces," said Gaskell. "Rather than limit opportunities for young people to participate in the economy, in BC we are increasing opportunities and keeping those opportunities affordable."